Cycle Touring on a Road Bike

My new book; ‘Ultralight Cycle Touring Guide‘, which is available on Amazon, deals with the subject of using a road bike, and a very carefully chosen selection and arrangement of equipment, to make an ultralight touring setup.

Road bikes have many natural assets; they offer precise handling at high speeds, are lightweight and aerodynamic. But, on the other hand they are less capable on rough surfaces, have a more fragile frames and often don’t have attachment points for racks.

To make your road bike work as a touring bike you will have to make some fundamental changes to the way you tour as well as a few compromises. In return, you’ll be able to build a sensational lightweight touring bike and enjoy the freedom of easy miles and easier hills.

Cycle Touring on a Road Bike

Cycle Touring on a Road Bike
Ultralight cycle setup dry bag and jacket

The first and biggest change when cycle touring on a road bike is that of your available routes. One the one hand, your road bike will really struggle on anything other than tar-sealed surface – though I’m sure you’ll be able to cope with small patches of gravel if needs must. But, riding on roads will be easy, swift, and fun.

Cycle touring on a road bike means that the hills won’t take so long, your potential daily mileage will significantly rise with no extra effort and with less kit to worry about you’ll feel very Zen. You’ll be able to take your road bike further and higher for less effort than a fully loaded touring bike.

Cycle Touring on a Road Bike over the Grossglockner High Alpine Road
Choose silky smooth roads and, if you wish, embrace the hills!

To really benefit from cycle touring on a road bike you must choose to work within the limitations the bike has set you. I learned to spend more time on cutting out equipment I could do without and less time trying to find ingenious ways to hold more stuff onto the road bike’s skinny frame.

Forget panniers and look towards drybags and compression sacks as your primary storage. Minimise any intermediate items such as those that exist to serve another. For example; don’t take a pump mount, store the pump directly into an essential piece of luggage like a dry bag, if you don’t have panniers you don’t need a pannier rack and if you only have two bottle mounts then go with it, don’t try to bolt on a third unless you really think it’s essential.

Cycle Touring on a Road Bike
Alpkit Airlok XTra Drybags

I use Alpkit drybags in the UK.

By letting the bike dictate what you pack and not fighting the natural restrictions that come with cycle touring on a road bike frame you’ll end up with a leaner and meaner configuration. Basically, when the bike says ‘No’… humbly and subserviently obey.

I would suggest, if you don’t already, to wear Lycra – I know not everyone is a fan  but trust me on this… There are two main reasons, one is that it’s lighter, aerodynamic and washes easily, meaning you can take one set and wash it as you go. It’s common sense that everything, including your selection of clothing, should be as light as possible for ultralight touring. The other reason is, you’ll probably be cycle touring on a road bike saddle, which can be skinny, hard and unforgiving. The padding in the shorts will be instrumental in keeping you comfortable.

One thing I asked myself when I began building my ultralight touring bike was; “Can the frame and wheels take the added weight and rigours of touring?” The answer is, that if you don’t overload your road bike and choose a route with mostly smooth roads, there will be no question of frame or wheel strength. Though it varies by manufacturer, most road frames and wheels have a rider weight limit of about 125kg (275lb). So, if you weigh, for example, 100kg you still have 25kg head room.

With food and water the total of your ultralight luggage should not exceed 12kg, leaving you in the clear with a 13kg margin of safety. As a proportion to your own body weight the equipment on an ultralight touring bike is low to negligible. The most important metric to look at is rider weight.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone has toured with a full carbon frame? Did you feel comfortable mounting equipment to it?

If you enjoyed this article on cycle touring on a road bike please consider sharing it or leaving a comment.

3 thoughts on “Cycle Touring on a Road Bike”

  1. James, thanks for your site.
    I had never used 4 full loaded panniers, My first travel through Laos I only had 30 liters bag on my rear racks. Now I’m exploring the way how to carry less and get more pleasure of riding on bike. And i found your page, I saw a video when you explained which equipment needed for long touring. I found this video is useful.
    Thanks, Lesha.

  2. Hello James. Nice website and ebook.
    It think it’s important to see there are “road-bike touring” evangelists around. The mainstream belief you can’t tour without at least 6 big bags full of heavy items and the bike which goes along with them is very strong, especially towards beginners who want to approach cycle touring.
    It took me years to realize that my bike road was not only OK for my kind of bike travel, but even the best choice for touring across big Alps passes, in which light touring approach is essential.
    So, yes, I’m happy with my (not so new) half aluminium half carbon bike. Just one thing about lightness and fixing equipment. I use a Tubus rack (you can fix a rack on a road bike without eyelets) and 2 Ortlieb panniers. It does make sense even from the weight point of view in my opinion. I managed to hack both and finally I got a total weight of 1,2 kg, for around 6 kg of stuff inside. That’s not extreme, but still light in my opinion and I appreciate very much the space and comfort panniers provide me. I don’t think the new, expensive, bikepacking approach is much lighter and for sure is not as comfortable (your simple drybags sytem is more reasonable).
    Thank you and keep up the good work.

    1. Hi Mathieu,

      I bet you were pleased to have discovered you only needed a road bike for the Alps. What a huge difference that would make! Yes I agree with you on the rack. I can see how sometimes it would make a lot of sense and it’s certainly very convenient. I talk about various rack options in my Ultralight Cycle Touring book. I particularly like the idea of seat post mounted racks, just enough to hold a decent sized dry bag. Thanks again Mathieu, it’s great to have you here on Cyclefar!

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